337 Westminster Street
Providence, RI 02903
Phone: (401) 222-2353
Fax: (401) 222-3199
Open to the public
8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Public social welfare in Rhode Island dates as far back as 1647, when the colony's legislature passed a law enjoining each town "to provide carefully for reliefe of the poore, to maintayne the impotent, and...to appoint an overseer for the same purpose. " Thus, this colonial version of England's poor laws confided care for the poor and dependent to local government authorities. Each of the colony’s towns and cities was responsible for dealing with local crime, poverty and the "insane" as well as with individuals deemed morally unfit to remain in the community. Along with jails, each town was given authority to establish asylums and poorhouses as it saw fit. The Dexter Asylum, for example, was established for Providence in 1838 and the Butler Hospital, was incorporated by the General Assembly at their January Session 1844 and operational in 1847, maintained the poor and insane for those towns that did not have asylums. This situation endured into the twentieth century. (Click here to see an extract on Rhode Island poor laws from Department of Commerce and Labor. Bureau of Census. Special Reports. Paupers in Almshouses. 1904. Accessed June 2013.)
By the 1860s, however, the provision and implementation of social welfare programs had begun to shift to newly established state government institutions. In 1867 the General Assembly struck a joint committee to look into the feasibility of establishing a state asylum for the insane. In its 1868 report to the General Assembly, however, the committee explained that it had been necessary to broaden the inquiry to include "a thorough investigation and review of the whole subject of pauperism." The committee concluded that state action regarding the insane should properly be taken "with reference to its natural connection with pauperism." Beyond this, the committee also proposed that crime, too, bore a relationship to their investigation, as "Insanity, pauperism and crime are evils which breed upon each other." Rhode Island. Acts, Resolve and Reports, Report of the Joint Committee on the State Asylum for the Insane. Report on the State Asylum for the Insane. Appendix #7. January 1868. 10pp
Several resolutions were then passed and reports filed concerning the implementation of the recommendations of the joint committee (Resolution on the report of the Joint Special Committee relative to a State Asylum for the Insane. (January 1868.) The committee was directed to find a suitable location, purchase farmland, and develop a plan for "the care of the insane, paupers, and criminals and helpless." Rhode Island. Acts, Resolve and Reports, Resolution upon the report of the Joint Special Committee relative to a State Asylum for the Insane. January 1868. p. 144. More details of this legislative history are available in the Board of State Charities and Corrections' first annual report.
In 1869, the state promulgated a law establishing a Board of State Charities and Corrections. (PL1869, Ch. 814). This was the beginning of the state government's ever-expanding role in the state's social welfare programs. In its first years, the board's membership consisted of six unpaid appointees, each to serve from one to six years. The board created several committees to oversee the development of its several institutions, their programs, and physical facilities, including workshops and a working State Farm. (The board was frequently known as the State Institutions and the State Farm.) Its founding legislation called for the Board to establish and build four institutions: " a state workhouse, a state asylum, for the incurable insane, a House of Corrections, and a State Almshouse for paupers (the term pauper continues to appear in state law - RIGL 40-5-10.) All of these institutions were to be located together on farmland in Cranston to be purchased by the state. According to their own early annual reports, the Commission's facilities, where they existed, were filled to overflowing almost as soon as they opened their doors, and were not adequately equipped to deal with those who had been admitted.
The board also appointed a Superintendent for the State Farm and Workhouse and a Superintendent of State Charities and Corrections. Over the next forty years, the institutions' professional and support staff would continue to expand - deputy superintendents, physicians, dentists, and nurses, educators and probation officers, an agent of charity and corrections - to keep up with current wisdom on the care and management of inmates, patients, and prisoners, and to accommodate the growth of the institutions’ populations.
The 1869 legislation also authorized the Board to oversee immigration to the state. Masters of vessels bringing to Rhode Island passengers who had lived outside the country for a minimum period were required to report them to the Commission. The Commission also required that a bond be given to ensure that these individuals would not be a burden to the state. Steamboats and railways conveying individuals from beyond the state were similarly required to report "the names, sex, age, and nativity" of their passengers
Over the next several decades the Board's already wide-ranging responsibilities continued to grow. In 1877, the Board took over from the Board of State Prison Inspectors the management of the State Prison and Providence County Jail. In 1880, the thirty year old Providence Reform School came under the Board (Click here to see the Providence City Archives' Reform School holdings) and was renamed the State Reform School (PL 1880, ch. 817.). Its' mission was to provide care for those who would later be described as delinquent youth. The school was divided into two separate departments in 1882, the Sockanosset School for Boys and the Oaklawn School for Girls (PL 1882, ch, 320.)
By 1917, as the Governor described it in his annual message, a commission to investigate the state of public welfare programs in the state, the State Public Welfare Commission, had found that the mission of the Board of State Charities and Corrections and that of the recently created Board of Supply and Control overlapped, and seemed at times to be in conflict. To solve this problem the government replaced the two boards with a Penal and Charitable Commission, which was renamed the State Public Welfare Commission in 1923. (First Annual Message of the Governor, Emory J. Sans Souci)
For descriptions of the evolution of the State Institutions, see this extract from Statewide Historical Preservation Report P-C-1 for Cranston, Rhode Island (1980.)
(For a description of town asylum and poorhouse records, click here.)